Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

SW8Director: Rian Johnson

Screenwriter: Rian Johnson

Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Laura Dern, and Domhnall Gleeson

Another year another Star Wars film. Man, if I could travel back to 1985 and tell my 5-year-old self that in the early 21st century, this will be a factual statement! That’s right, we have entered the era of annual Star Wars movies, and this year’s entry is a doozie. The eagerly anticipated sequel to 2015’s The Force Awakens and the 8th episode of the principal series is here, and it is called The Last Jedi. A formidable title for a film that like no other before it, takes the franchise to some new heights as well as one or two new lows.

This is an immediate sequel to The Force Awakens, and given where that film leaves off, that’s the right move. The First Order being victorious against the Republic, is on the move to seize control of the galaxy under Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his loyal legion including Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Admiral Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). Leia (Carrie Fisher) and what’s left of the resistance continue to stand against the First Order, while Rey (Daisy Ridley) attempts to convince the reclusive Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to join the fight.

I’d wager to say, unlike any Star Wars film before it, this one will be the most divisive. The original trilogy is generally regarded as brilliant, the prequels are generally regarded as garbage, but The Last Jedi I think will go down as having the best of both worlds: strong haters and strong supporters, not unlike the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. Family-bonds and friendships may be lost forever over this film.

Before I get into why, I will reveal myself as one of the strong supporters. However, I do see where some of the haters are coming from. But they’re wrong, for the most part. Blockbuster films tend to have a ludicrous obligation to deliver predictable comfort-filled experiences rather than challenge audiences with surprises and risks. Most critics of the film are citing the fact that it does not answer the questions that were posed from the previous film. The choice to back away from and subvert expectations often comes with some occasional flaws, but those flaws are worth it, if the overall result is something new, ambitious, and most importantly, something that has direction. That’s ultimately what we have here with The Last Jedi; there are flaws, but at the end we have so many opportunities to see these Star Wars films continue on beyond the immediate threats playing out.

This review is going to play it safe, so I will not be discussing many specifics in terms of plot and developments, and focusing more on the mechanics and commentary. So what’s so great about The Last Jedi? There are two things that I think will stand supreme when all the dust around this film settles. First, The Last Jedi is the first Star Wars film to truly capture the allure of the dark side. Many have taken it for granted, two have attempted to show it, but only this film gets it right. Ask yourself, “What is the dark side?” Why is it attractive? Is it just greed for power? Then why would they ever band together? Why would there be Supreme leaders and Emperors? Is it just basic evil for the sake of evil? Is it fascism? That’s what The Force Awakens attempted to explore. But no, it’s not that either. For all the questions fans are claiming The Last Jedi does not answer, here’s one it does answer that no one was even asking, and it may be the most important one of all. To avoid spoilers, I will leave it at this, but I will say that The Last Jedi spins the entire motivation and philosophy of Star Wars on its head and gives us the most authentic perspective of what all of this is really about!

Secondly, The Last Jedi opened the conversation about how the force works beyond just the training, teaching, control aspect. Again, to avoid spoilers, I will be brief and vague. We learn that who we think is supposedly “special” may not be so “special” after all. The force may not be so exclusive, and maybe (like what the net neutrality repeal will inevitably allow), someone is just hogging it all! The force has never been as intricate and involved as it is in this film, and I think that was a brilliant decision.

lastjedi17Where The Force Awakens was an enjoyable (and I do mean enjoyable) romp through the familiar days of A New Hope, The Last Jedi is a far more mature film. This film marks, perhaps, the first Star Wars film not aimed principally at kids and teens. While there is more than enough for them to enjoy about The Last Jedi, the more involved and complex themes will likely go over their heads. Kids will grasp on to the idea that anyone can make a difference, but they may be lost in the exploration of the disappointment of meeting one’s heroes and finding out they’re frauds. That theme resonates throughout the film and writer/director Rian Johnson runs with it to massive effect. He forces us (pun intended) to examine all of the characters and evaluate them from minute to minute with the goal of showing us that what we thought we knew may not be true at all. This is unsettling, but also an outstanding achievement for a Star Wars film or any form of entertainment for that matter.

These are the places where The Last Jedi shines. The big picture stuff. The exploration of mythos and themes, and not satiating our curiosity with sugary artificial satisfaction. Still, as I mentioned, there are a few places where the film admittedly stumbles. The 153 minute running time is not lean and mean. It’s occasionally bloated with some silly additions that feel cheesy and unnecessary, primarily a sequence involving Finn (John Boyega) and a resistance fighter named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) who are sent on a wild goose chase to a planet full of “the worst creatures in the galaxy.” Except part of why they’re the worst is because they’re rich. Really Star Wars/Disney, you want to go there? I felt a little dumb sitting in a theater after pre-purchasing tickets to see the latest TLJFathiers-696x467installment of a billion dollar franchise, which then spent a sizable portion of its running time pretending to condemn the wealthy elite. I’m not saying Star Wars is incapable of taking on this subject matter, but the “worst creatures in the world” gag felt a little disingenuous. Also, there’s a weird animal abuse subplot involving some horse-like creatures being force to race for entertainment. This whole part is problematic.

There are at least two other areas that came across cheesy or needless, one of which involves a very precarious event involving General Leia that definitely raised an eyebrow. Still, these are minor qualms in an otherwise, risky, different, and dare I say original installment in a now much more interesting saga. Star Wars – The Last Jedi is worthy of praise and debate. It is both enigmatic and iconic. It’s also a visual and acting masterwork. Director Rian Johnson, who is mostly known for a couple of relatively small-time films like Looper and The Lookout, shows what he’s made of. He blows the lid off the theater with one of the finest opening and closing scenes of any Star Wars film, all while carrying the weight of recently beloved characters like Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) as well as introducing new characters like Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), and then navigating the tricky terrain of classically loved characters like Leia, C-3PO, R2-D2, and the Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Furthermore, Hamill’s performance is easily the finest of his career, and Adam Driver’s performance as Kylo Ren is spectacular this time around. It’s also pretty darn funny at times. This movie’s got it all! In fact this review is just scratching the surface. Star Wars – The Last Jedi is not without its flaws, but it is also one of the most ambitious films of the franchise, and certainly the richest in terms of critical analysis. I think in several years people will look back on this film as the one that transformed the saga into something new. B+

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 152 minutes.

X-Men: Apocalypse

Xmen

Director: Bryan Singer

Screenwriter: Simon Kinberg

Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Oscar Isaac, and Sophie Turner

For 16 years, Bryan Singer has managed the fairly difficult task of directing multiple entries within a franchise and having each one be superior to its predecessor.  His first three X-Men films (X-Men, X2, and X-Men: Days of Future Past) were each a step forward in terms of greatness.  While that streak does end with this year’s X-Men: Apocalypse, it is only because Days of Future Past was SO good!  X-Men: Apocalypse is a very good X-Men film and one that does not tarnish Singer’s legacy one bit.

Picking up the pieces of the shattered timeline left in the wake of Days of Future Past, Apocalypse opens in the early 1980s and finds Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) finally realizing his vision of a school for “Gifted” youngsters. Meanwhile, Eric “Magneto” Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), determined to disappear into anonymity, has taken a blue collar job in a steel mill and settled down off the grid with his wife Magda (Carolina Bartczak) and daughter Nina (T.J. McGibbon).  Unfortunately for both of them, an ancient mutant who goes by the name Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) is accidentally unearthed from the rubble of his fallen pyramid by an old friend from X-Men: First Class, Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne).  Disgusted by the power of the “weak” in the modern world, Apocalypse decides to gather his “four horsemen” and duly wipe the slate clean of all undeserving people of Earth.

Whenever total annihilation of the human race is on the line, the stakes are admittedly high. However, the complex and clever time-rift that drove the action in Days of Future Past leaves the Apocalypse conflict feeling a little generic in comparison.  Consequently, Isaac’s performance as the main villain is also slightly underwhelming.  That being said, there is not much more to find fault with in this film.  Once again, the “First Class” cast fills the screen with charisma at every turn. Magneto specifically is given some powerful and intense developments that impact the story and the future of the franchise. In fact, all of the returning characters are used well. One of the only disappointments I had with Days of Future Past was that the relationship between Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank “Beast” McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) that was so ripe in X-Men: First Class was so utterly downplayed in Days of Future PastApocalypse rights that wrong by giving Mystique a more prevalent and endurable role and reuniting her with the rest of the team in a more meaningful way.  That said, Singer wisely does not fall victim to the temptation to overplay the fact that he has the number one actress in the world in his film by pivoting too much on Lawrence.  Instead he focuses more on the emerging powers of young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and her relationship with Scott “Cyclops” Summers (Tye Sheridan).  The introduction to these characters in the new timeline has been hotly anticipated and the film does a nice job of showcasing these characters and whetting our appetite for how their story will play out this time.

On the other hand, Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg do struggle a little under the weight of including and introducing so many other new characters.  I recently stated that Captain America: Civil War is the first Marvel film to truly accomplish the goal of introducing new characters flawlessly.  Unfortunately, X-Men: Apocalypse falls short of that accomplishment.  Notable examples include Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-Mcphee), young Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and Angel (Ben Hardy) all of whom remind us of similar character messes from films like Spiderman 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand.  The most glaringly troubling new character inclusion, however is Olivia Munn as Psylocke.  Munn has made a career as the quote/unquote “Booth Babe,” who stands around posing at comic-cons and looking pretty.  Ironically, her acting roles have been relatively far-removed from the geek culture that made her famous and at times she’s shown some real talent.  With X-Men: Apocalypse, she had her chance to reunite with comic

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Olivia Munn as Psylocke in X-Men: Apocalypse. Image from comingsoon.net

book culture and demonstrate some strength in that arena, but instead her character is relegated to appearances so overtly gratuitous that the audience is taken out of the movie so they can laugh at her impracticable hip-popping, silent stances alongside her team of mutant villains.  If you need more proof, read this article about how she needed lube to squeeze into her costume. The character is meant to be sexy, no doubt, but this is ridiculous.  Next time, give her a line or two of dialogue as well.

X-Men: Apocalypse does a very good job of furthering the X-Men storyline with style and excitement.  The film does struggle with some elements of execution, but none of them take too much away from its enjoyment factor. B+      

X-Men Apocalypse is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 14 minutes.  Stay tuned through the credits for another one of those characteristic Marvel post-credit stingers.  It’s a pretty deep reference though, so if you’re not a comic book nerd, you may need some assistance to make sense of it.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Force_AwakensDirector: J.J. Abrams

Screenwriters: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, and Michael Arndt

Cast: You know who is in this! Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, and Oscar Isaac

“Star Wars! Nothing but Star Wars! Gimme those Star Wars…don’t let them end!”   Bill Murray’s lounge singing character from Saturday Night Live will be happy to know that thanks to writer/director J.J. Abrams, Star Wars will not be ending any time soon! The record breaking blockbuster Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a spectacular step forward for the franchise and establishes Abrams as the true geek-legend that we all hoped he’d be.

The Force Awakens is the seventh episode in the space opera and takes place 40 years after the events of Episode IV: A New Hope. The Republic’s victory after Return of the Jedi has prompted a new imperial force to rise from the ashes of the Empire, known as the First Order. The goal of the First Order under the command of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and Commander Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is to take advantage of a basically disarmed galaxy and enforce rule. Ren, a force-sensitive human, leads the charge colonizing planets with throngs of storm troopers at his heels. Fortunately, the Republic did not quite disarm the entire galaxy and a resistance under another force-sensitive human, General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), continues to spar against the increasingly strengthening First Order.

But that’s all big picture, behind the scenes stuff. The main plot of Episode VII actually should feel quite familiar. When a young aspiring pilot named Rey (Daisy Ridley) with dreams of fighting for the Resistance happens upon a small droid with important information, she enlists the help from a know-it-all pilot named Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and a renegade storm trooper (John Boyega) to deliver the information to the resistance before it falls into the hands of the First Order. Familiarity is, however, not a liability for this film; it is a “force.” Abrams and company do the right thing in giving us a familiar story that introduces a host of new characters who must deal with the sacrifices, aftermath, and consequences of the generation before them. Boyega’s storm trooper Finn is especially fascinating. His inability to slaughter innocent citizens under the orders of Snoke and Ren lead him to team up with a Resistance pilot named Poe (Oscar Isaac), offering one of the most intriguing perspectives of any film in the franchise. His duality and sense of integrity to reject all he’s been raised to believe because he knows it’s wrong echoes the inner conflict of another Finn named Huckleberry, which I can’t imagine is a coincidence (Yes, this Star Wars film has layers!).

Honestly though, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a delight. It is exciting, it is insightful, it is nostalgic, and it is beautiful. Expectations and standards were at nearly insatiable levels for this film, and yet somehow it delivers. The new cast represents the finest acting that any Star Wars film has ever seen and the returning characters are not wasted or used for superfluous purposes. While it is joy to see Harrison Ford hold a blaster again, I could not get enough of Boyega, Ridley, and Isaac. Easter eggs abound for serious fans, but The Force Awakens plays to even those who have never seen the previous films. In fact, this film puts the final nail in Episode I: The Phantom Menace’s coffin. The best lightsaber battle in any Star Wars film used to be the one between Darth Maul and Obi-Wan Kenobe; it was the only reason to even watch that film. However, that distinction may now have to go to the spectacular climactic battle in The Force Awakens.

It is likely that you weren’t waiting to hear what The People’s Critic had to say before going to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens; a $500 million global opening weekend speaks to that pretty loudly. Still, it is my duty to report that those $500 million dollars are not wrong, and this is the one fans have been waiting for. For the first time since 1983, you can go in and not “have a bad feeling about this.” A

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes.